A single thought raced through my mind. Both of his replies seemed to highlight how he was not a person to be ruled by emotions. While this could be said of a highly trained professional soldier, I was astonished to realise that this could even be present in a fourteen year-old child soldier who had only undergone eight months of basic training. How would the urban youths of our generation respond if they were caught in a similar situation?
“I would think that I would be really afraid to even move in a battlefield. I would be truly fearful and scared,” I paused. “How did you lose your fear?”
“We were well-trained by foreign trainers from Libya and Pakistan.” His tone changed. The sadness gave way to a certain solemnness. Wars create circumstances in which there is no time to grief. His priority, as a fourteen year-old, was to survive.
Something did not add up. Jamal was introduced as a peace builder. That he had to live through war and fight when he was a child was clear. A thought raced through my mind – was he simply a reactionary victim that decided to take up arms or was he a member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)?
I decided to take the plunge.
“Are you from the MNLF?”
“Yes.” Unrehearsed, categorical, definite without any hesitation whatsoever.
The next sequence of events was to be even more astounding. It would have been natural to anticipate that this would draw murmurs or slight disapproval from those in the room who are charged with building peace in this conflict-stricken community. As an MNLF member, one would definitely have been an actor of war, and not simply that of a victim of the conflict.
Instead, the room broke out into laughter. James, Matet and Nicole were chuckling once they heard Jamal’s response. There was clearly something I was not privy to. I turned and looked at them. They were clearly amused but they were not about to give it away.
Jamal, himself, was smiling as well. He lifted his hands behind his head and grinned. “As a Muslim, we were all MNLF during that time.”
“Didn’t you have a choice?”
“No choice because of the military,” Jamal replied in his strong Filipino accent. “No choice, because brothers and sisters all there [MNLF]. No other place to go because farms and animals killed. No source of income.” It was not difficult to be persuaded by Jamal’s explanation.
If one were to lose everything one held dear, and everything necessary to survive, it is very conceivable that one would be forced to move into another sphere of life with perhaps a desire to be vindictive. If I were put in a similar context, I couldn’t definitively state that I would not do the same.
I was not convinced that there was no choice and that his route had been set in stone. However, I decided to let it slide for the time being.
“We were the first batch to be trained. Eight months of rigid training.”
I was perplexed. When I was eighteen years old, I found it difficult to settle and take on a life dictated by military discipline (national service is mandatory in Singapore). In front of me, however, was one who had no complaints or regrets about undergoing eight months of intensive rigid training at the age of fourteen. I would not dare to deny that the loss of one’s relatives and home would definitely harden one’s outlook in life. Yet surely one must have had doubts during those eight months of training. I waited for a chance to ask.
“We trained with G1 Pistol Carbine, AK-47 and M4.”